Sometimes the most well-intentioned message can eclipse unintentionally the medium in which it is embedded. A delicate balance is preserved in the first half of The Jungle with great skill, but in the second the justified outrage slips its theatrical leash and leaches into harangue and docudrama. Yet by the end of the evening we have witnessed a genuine emotional roller-coaster, and experienced and pondered many searing examinations of the possibilities and limits of social responsibility. This is political drama at its most ambitious, and it mostly succeeds.
There are many surprises in this absorbing and continually thought-provoking production, but perhaps the greatest comes right at the start. You walk in through the usual doorway to meet a clustered signpost pointing towards various countries. Your reviewer’s ticket suggested he was heading towards the ‘Sudan’, which involved quite a corridor-trek, and a mock-up storeroom before opening out into the familiar theatre space transformed into a makeshift restaurant, with elevated walkways running between tables and benches set out for service down to the level of bottles of ketchup. Some sit on benches and other punters perch on cushions and chairs at the sides of the scene. A more meticulously grungy and carefully contrived appearance of make-do-and-mend you could not ask for.
This is the achievement of designer Miriam Buether, and it provides the crucial, indispensable, immersive backdrop to what follows. Over nearly three hours (with interval) we discover, from within, the story of the shanty-town at Calais that was finally demolished by French police in 2016 after years of housing thousands of refugees and migrants.
We begin with the confusing closure of the camp and the expulsion of its inhabitants and the aid workers living among them. Then the narrative switches back to the beginning and we see how ethnic and national rivalries are overcome and a community is forged painfully out of shared needs and common vulnerabilities.
This sort of drama is incredibly difficult to bring off. This is a story with which we are in part familiar, so there can be no suspense surrounding the plot. Moreover, it is a show with a self-conscious agenda and a strong political message, of whatever kind, risks becoming tendentious propaganda unless leavened by dramatic twists and dialectical encounters that sustain genuine human interest and tension.
For the first half the tension is brilliantly maintained by all concerned, but after the interval it becomes more a matter of telling than showing, and the dramatic pulse slackens as point-scoring discussions begin to predominate. And the very end is messed up unnecessarily because we have already seen the finale at the beginning of the evening when we do not know any of the characters.
The cumulative power of the show would have been greater with a simpler linear narrative and a shorter, punchier second half devoted to action, not discussion. Then the evening would have been totally overwhelming instead of simply admirable. At several points you sense it is striving towards a more general social parable, coming close at times to the mood and devices of Jerusalem, but the command of structure is not yet equal to that grand ambition.
That said, there is a huge amount to admire in this production, which for all its striving for contemporary modernity is at its very best in providing a tragic story that purges with cathartic pity in terms that Aristotle would have approved. At the centre of the evening are scenes of collective joy and despair that directors Stephen Daldry and Justin Martin conjure up out of nowhere, and a clutch of performances that in their harrowing detail and power are quite the equal of anything that has passed across the West End stage in the last year.
Notwithstanding the structural problems noted above, playwrights Joe Murphy and Joe Robertson create a set of characters that evolve and interact delightfully and plausibly under the stress of events. So they should. They were the writers who created a theatre in the actual camp, met many of the people whose lives they describe, and are uniquely equipped to be their chroniclers.
The stories of the refugees, their friendships and enmities, are woven carefully into the background of political events that punctuated the refugee crisis, whether the death of Alan Kurdi or the Bataclan massacres in Paris, with which the Jungle became (inaccurately) associated.
We see ethnic, gender, religious and generational conflicts among the refugees all acted out with passion and humour and wonderfully fluent stage movement. We get a clear sense of people constantly near the end of their tethers, yet nevertheless finding further energy and human renewal through and despite each other, and the obstacles they face.
We also witness an array of British and French interventions that run the gamut from a perpetually drunken vagrant builder, to aid workers covering all social classes and backgrounds, and with varying motivations and effectiveness. The French authorities are brutally suggested rather than depicted in detail. It is a cast of sixteen, set in circumstances where every day brings impossible, incommensurable practical choices, and no one can emerge with a pristine moral score card.
Amongst the deadly seriousness there is, importantly, a lot of joshing and mocking humour, and a lot of song and dance, which is grounded in the action as well as providing stimulating variety and a relief from the more didactic confrontations. The plight of the very large number of unaccompanied children is eloquently portrayed by child who observes and participates in the action with a serene focus throughout. Much of the irony is based on real events: who would have guessed, for example, that AA Gill came over to the camp and gave the Afghan cuisine a four-star rating?
Among the performances there are, perhaps, seven that invite special mention. As the Afghan café manager, Salar (Ben Turner) has to cover a huge range of emotions which take him on the longest psychological journey of all. Norullah (Mohammed Amiri), is very successful as a contrast to this dour father figure: he is the irrepressible scamp who provides humour and light relief all round. Safi (Ammar Haj Ahmad) is the closest the play offers to a narrator figure, but one who is ethically anguished and constantly inviting the audience to reflect on how we would manage the same dilemmas. Okot (John Pfumojena) is a withdrawn refugee whose physical travails from Darfur to Calais are set out in a compelling monologue of overwhelming bleak power that provides the high-point of the second half.
Trevor Fox provides glorious comic relief as the perpetually drunken Boxer; and Beth (Rachel Redford) and Sam (Alex Lawther) follow sharp but different learning curves as well-meaning but very naïve volunteers who have to find out the hard way that the line between help and condescension is a perilously narrow one. These performances move and bite deeply because the actors take us with them at every point in their awkward journeys.
Sometimes the most well-intentioned message can eclipse unintentionally the medium in which it is embedded. A delicate balance is preserved in the first half of this evening with great skill, but in the second the justified outrage slips its theatrical leash and leaches into harangue and docudrama. Yet by the end of the evening we have witnessed a genuine emotional roller-coaster, and experienced and pondered many searing examinations of the possibilities and limits of social responsibility. This is political drama at its most ambitious, and it mostly succeeds.